“I smell chocolate and walnuts,” Daniel declared with a pleased smile as he entered the kitchen.
“And meatballs, tomato sauce and pasta, I hope,” said Sam, raising an eyebrow as he looked up from the stove, where he was standing over a large saucepan.
“Yeah, yeah, that too,” Daniel waved him off as he bee-lined towards Cassie who was busy dropping balls of cookie dough onto a large cookie sheet and then flattening them with the bottom of a glass.
“This is for after lunch, Uncle Daniel,” said Cassie when he came to look over her shoulder.
“But I'm on vacation,” he whined.
“And coffee and chocolate are still not a food group.”
Daniel huffed and poured himself some still-steaming coffee before going to join Steve, Natasha and Clint at the spacious kitchen table. “Some days, I think you take after your mother a little too much.”
“My mom managed to intimidate ex-black ops Jack O'Neill and Uncle Murray, so good. I can only hope to do the same thing with my medical degree... once I have it and all.”
“I almost feel sorry for the poor marines already. Except that, well, they're marines.”
Sam burst out laughing. Daniel's eyes twinkled mischievously as he looked around the table. Natasha looked amused – in a way that reminded him of Teal'c as he'd been ten years ago – and Steve and Clint were chuckling.
“Your mom was a military doctor?” Sam asked Cassie.
“Air force,” she answered with a nod. “Doctor Janet Fraiser: she was the CMO at the base where Daniel works.”
Sam's eyebrows rose in surprise. “Janet Fraiser? As in five foot nothing spitfire with brown hair and a look that made generals freeze before weeping in jealousy?”
“Yep, that sounds like Janet,” Daniel answered, turning around in his seat. “You knew her?”
Sam smiled. “Yeah, I did my field medic training under her. Man, she was a slave-driver, but I sure learned a lot from her. The things she drilled into me stayed with me, and saved both my life and my patients' lives more times than I can count.”
Daniel smiled. “Yeah, she was amazing like that.”
Suddenly, Sam frowned, looking between the two of them. “Was?” he asked carefully.
Daniel glanced to Cassie, took in her still hands and tense shoulders. He waited, wondering if she would answer or leave it to him.
“KIA,” Cassie finally whispered. She swallowed. “A couple of years ago. D-Daniel was there, he could probably tell you what happened.”
“She was in the field?”
“Emergency medical evac,” Daniel supplied, but refused to go on. Not here, not in front of Cassie. He knew that in some way she took comfort in knowing that thanks to Janet's sacrifice, there was a little girl in the world who would have the chance to know her father, but that didn't make the grief easier to bear. And she'd seen far too much of it for someone so young.
“I'm sorry for your loss,” said Sam softly. “She was a wonderful person, one of the best.”
Daniel looked down into the dark depths of his coffee cup. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cassie nod curtly and then hurry over to the oven when a timer went off. He took a deep drink of his coffee, savouring the hot bitter liquid on his tongue, let it wash away the sting of his own grief. Composed, he turned back to the rest of the table. The others looked back in a mixture of sympathy and understanding. He sighed, trying to think of some way to move the conversation onto a happier note.
Bruce did it for him when he walked into the kitchen. “You know, I think this is the first time this kitchen has smelt this good since I've lived here,” he said.
“And that is a sin,” said Sam. “An inexcusable sin, because this kitchen is awesome. Us mere mortals only dream of cooking in a kitchen like this.”
“Must've cost a fortune too,” Cassie added from where she was placing oven-fresh cookies onto a cooling rack. “Why bother when you're not going to use it?”
Bruce shrugged. “Tony never gets anything less than the best even if he's not using it.”
“He was probably secretly hoping one of us cooked,” said Natasha.
Clint snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that. I don't have the patience to read recepies, Natasha burns water and Steve grew up in the depression. The only one of us with any hope of being able to cook is Bruce.”
“Well, you're not altogether wrong,” said Bruce, looking amused. “I have learned quite a few dishes over the course of my travels, but it's not something I consider a hobby.”
“Hm, if we're still here tonight, I can make some mujadarra for dinner,” said Daniel thoughtfully.
“If?” said Clint. “You think that after handing Stark a brand new mysterious science project to play with he's going to just let you walk away? You'll be lucky if he lets you go home after your vacation's over.”
Daniel chuckled. “Well then I suppose I should go out and get supplies.”
“If there is something you require, I will be happy to arrange for it to be delivered to the tower.”
“Thanks, JARVIS,” said Daniel, looking in the direction of where he guessed at least one of the security cameras in the room was located. “But I was taught that gathering ingredients was just as much of a part of preparing the dish as the cooking itself. Besides, I have to go find some souvenirs anyway.”
“I understand, Daniel Jackson.”
Cassie put her now-empty bowl into the dishwasher. “Daniel doesn't cook often, but when he does it's totally worth it.”
“Looking forward to it,” said Sam. “Just to warn you though, super soldier over there's got a black hole in his stomach.”
Steve's face took on a slightly pink hue. “It's the serum,” he said.
Daniel nodded. “Ah, so you are Captain America. I thought so.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to find Cassie grinning down at him. “You figured it out all on your own, I'm impressed.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Don't you start. Just because I spent my childhood with my nose in historical texts and learning dead languages doesn't mean I don't know people who read comic books.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, like who?”
Daniel smirked. “Jack.”
Her eyes widened. “Really? As in he read comic books in general or Captain America comic books specifically?”
“Um, not sure how many other comic books he might've read, but he definitely had a large Captain America collection, which he then gave to his son. Which he then gave to Murray to give to his son, Ryac.”
“Wow, that's quite the, uh, journey those comic books have made. Do you know if Murray read them?”
Daniel shrugged. “If I'd come across Murray reading them by candlelight in his room at the base, I'm sure I would've been sworn to secrecy.”
Cassie giggled. “I think I've figured out what I'm going to get him for Christmas.”
“Whatever it is, you should get Steve to sign it for you,” said Clint.
Cassie's eyes lit up and she looked to Steve. “Oooh, would you please?”
Steve smiled. “Sure, no problem.”
“So, out of curiosity, just how accurate are the comic books?” Daniel asked. “I mean, obviously I'm not expecting most of them to be given how many of them there are, but I think I remember Jack saying that the first ones were published while you were still alive.”
Steve nodded. “I saw the first few editions after they came out.” He shrugged. “They got the basics right. I was a skinny, sickly kid from Brooklyn who tried to lie his way into the army because I wanted to help protect my country same as everyone else. Then I got lucky because Abraham Erskin saw me and offered me the chance. Still don't know how he knew, but he'd somehow figured out what I'd been up to, lying on my recruitment papers and all. I was injected with the super serum, Erskin was assassinated and then I spent nearly a year as a dancing monkey on a war bonds tour.”
“Sorry, you must get sick of repeating the story,” said Daniel quietly.
Steve gave him a sort of half-smile. “A little bit. The Jeffersonian did a pretty good job with their exhibit.”
“Hm, I'll have to go see it next time I'm in Washington.”
“Weren't you just in Washington?” Cassie asked him.
“Yes, and yes, I did go to the Jeffersonian, but Jack wasn't with me so I got to skip all the twentieth century military exhibits.”
The oven timer beeped and Cassie just shook her head as she went to swap a sheet of baked cookies for a sheet of unbaked ones. Daniel looked to Steve apologetically.
“Sorry, it's not that I don't think your contribution to history wasn't important or significant– ”
Steve waved his apologies away. “Cassie already explained it to me. I'm less than two thousand years old, therefore that apparently makes me too young for you.” His eyes twinkled in amusement. “Quite frankly I spend enough time feeling too old in this century, so being 'too young' is a nice change.”
Daniel chuckled. “Fair enough. So you'll forgive me then for asking why there aren't more super soldiers out there. Given that it was a military-funded project in the first place, I would've expected it to have continued once they'd managed a successful experiment.”
“Oh they did,” Bruce answered him. “But no one's been able to recreate the results. The Hulk is actually the result of that research.”
“Huh, a bit of an extreme result though.”
“And yet, believe it or not, one of the more successful ones.”
Daniel's eyebrows rose. “Really?”
Bruce shrugged. “Well I haven't died because my DNA has destabilized nor have I suddenly regressed and developed genetic abnormalities and defects, so yes, marginally successful.”
“The Hulk is also significantly less of a monster than the Abomination,” Natasha added quietly.
“Yeah, but Emil Blonsky wasn't exactly the paragon of sanity before he was injected with the serum,” Clint pointed out.
Daniel frowned. “But our science and understanding of genetics in particular has come a long way since the 1940s.”
Bruce shrugged. “It's widely believed in the scientific community that Doctor Abraham Erskin did some last-minute adjustments to the formula the night before the experiment, but never wrote them down. You have to remember that, while constrained by the technology of his day, Erskin was leagues beyond everyone else in his field and had an intuitive understanding of genetics that most scientists today can't boast.”
Daniel nodded thoughtfully.
“Erskin said the serum was designed to enhance a person's qualities: good became great and bad became evil,” Steve added quietly.
Daniel frowned. “That doesn't sound very scientific. I mean, aren't 'good' and 'evil' defined by human culture and understanding in the first place? For instance, to early Christians demons were messengers, middle-men between Heaven and the earthly realm and in the Middle Ages that definition changed to mean the dark and malevolent creatures of Hell.”
“I-I'm not sure...” said Steve, looking taken aback. “I know that other than me, the Red Skull was the only other successful super soldier and he was nothing less than pure evil.”
“Then the serum is like a weapon: hand a bad man a gun and he'll kill people, hand a good man a gun and he'll protect them. Your goal from the start was to fight for your country, to protect people. His was to create the perfect Aryan race and the serum made him stronger, faster and maybe smarter than any human: the highest point of human evolution that he could conceive of. I don't think you really need a genius to figure out what was going to happen to the two of you.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha nod thoughtfully. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she said.
Daniel hoped his internal flinch wasn't noticeable. He took a breath and let it out.
“That doesn't really change the fact that Red Skull and Steve are the only two successful super soldiers in existence,” Bruce pointed out.
“Three,” Natasha corrected him quietly.
Daniel saw her exchange looks with Steve, saw raw grief flash across his face for a moment, before it was smothered beneath a neutral facade. He looked away, to where Cassie was carefully beginning to arrange a mountain of cookies onto a large red ceramic platter. He considered the problem as he watched her move the cookies one by one with a spatula.
“Yeah, three,” Steve agreed quietly. “Although the Winter Soldier was Zola's masterpiece. He might not have been created with the same serum.”
Natasha acknowledged his point with a nod of her head.
“The Winter Soldier?” Bruce asked.
“We'll explain later,” Steve told him.
“What if you've been going about it the wrong way?” Daniel suddenly asked, his head still turned towards Cassie although his eyes not really seeing her. “What if it wasn't Erskin's formula that made the difference?”
There was a moment of silence. “What do you mean?” Bruce asked with a puzzled frown.
“It was just Erskin's formula and Howard Stark's vita rays,” said Steve with an equally puzzled frown.
Daniel turned around and looked Steve in the eyes. “And you,” he said simply.
He turned to Bruce. “What if Erskin got lucky in choosing Steve, not entirely realizing he'd hit a sort of genetic jackpot? I mean, the man died right after the experiment so we really have no idea whether any subsequent attempts would've been successful even for him.”
“A genetic anomaly,” Bruce breathed, understanding lightening his face.
“Are there any samples of Steve's blood from before the serum?” Natasha asked after a moment's pause.
Bruce shook his head. “No. That's been one of the biggest hampers on the research all along, that we have no way of comparing how exactly the serum changed his blood. There are some odd genetic markers in his DNA now, but it's difficult to tell whether they were there before or not. Admittedly, when Betty and I had been conducting our research on the serum with the blood samples we had, we just generally assumed that anything unusual was a result of the serum itself...”
Bruce trailed off, although it was clear his mind was still busy processing. Clint began to grin after a few moments of silence.
“I think you might've just blown his mind, Doctor Jackson,” he said.
Natasha's lips quirked slightly, but then she looked to Daniel with a curious expression. “Do you have any idea of what sort of genetic anomaly we're talking about here?”
Daniel shrugged. “Sorry. I'm good at brainstorming and throwing out ideas, but this is generally the part where I sit back and let the experts in the field take over.”
“It sounds like a pretty good guess though,” said Clint. “What do you think, Cap?”
Steve looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. “I'm not entirely sure.”
Sam suddenly appeared with a stack of pasta plates. “Whatever,” he said, placing them down in front of Steve with a clear gesture to distribute them. “Me, I'm not entirely sure I want more super soldiers running around the world. And I'm pretty sure we've got bigger problems than unlocking the secrets of the super soldier formula. Hey JARVIS, could you let the others know lunch is being served?”
“Of course, Mister Wilson, it will be my pleasure.”
“You're very welcome.”
Daniel smiled at the amusement in the AI's voice as he took the utensils Cassie set in front of him and began to distribute them. Several minutes later, Phil Coulson, Skye and May entered the kitchen, a disgruntled-looking Tony Stark trailing behind them. He stopped just inside the kitchen and blinked.
“It smells like food in here,” he said.
“That's what a kitchen's supposed to smell like,” said Sam dryly. “Now stop gaping and find a seat.”
“Are we going to all fit?” Coulson asked, eyeing the table warily. It was a large table, true enough, but it didn't look nearly large enough to fit them all.
“There's a dining room just down the hall,” said Tony, looking at the table with a similar look of distrust.
“We'll just get Captain America to squish up and there'll be plenty of room for everyone,” said Sam.
Steve rolled his eyes.
“No, seriously though,” Sam continued. “I've seen that dining room: it's all crystal chandelier, fancy wooden table with gold trim and paintings on the wall. I feel like I need to be wearing a suit and tie just to walk into the damn room and I am not wearing a suit and tie for spaghetti and meatballs! We're eating in here.”
Tony raised an eyebrow in amusement and then went to find a sliver of room at the kitchen table. Lunch was a loud, boisterous affair with light-hearted conversation. And a few thrown meatballs, but that was quickly put a stop to by Natasha, who stared both Clint and Tony down until they popped the meatballs they were holding into their mouths and picked up their forks again. Bruce and Daniel ignored them as they compared stories of their travels around the world.
When the last of them (Steve) had finally finished eating – he'd learned to stop feeling embarrassed by how much he consumed and so was able to easily roll his eyes at Tony's comments. Especially once Cassie told Tony to knock it off and threatened to withhold cookies if he didn't.
“So, Daniel, you seem to have spent a lot of time in the desert,” Steve heard Coulson say when they'd sat back down after having cleared the table.
“Yes, I have,” Daniel answered. A small, wistful smile appeared on his face and Steve felt his own heart echo the longing in the other man's eyes. “Some of the happiest times of my life were spent in the desert. It's beautiful.”
On the other side of the table, Tony shivered. “I only like sand when there's a beach attached,” he said before taking a long drink of his coffee.
“Is that where you died?” Coulson asked.
Tony sprayed coffee all over Bruce, causing enough commotion that likely no one but Steve heard Cassie's soft gasp as she paled, her eyes widening in horror. Daniel froze momentarily, but quickly shrugged off his surprise and looked to Couslon with narrowed eyes.
“Where I died?” he repeated. “I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I do have a pulse.”
Coulson smiled blandly at him, his eyes sharp. “And yet you were declared dead by the military.”
“Obviously, that was done in error.”
“And you didn't notice for an entire year?”
Steve looked to Natasha and saw her watching Daniel carefully. “I was out of the country and didn't notice until I got back.”
“Hm. And the second time?”
“Second time?” Tony asked, his voice still a little hoarse from his coughing fit. “What exactly are you saying: that he's a zombie with pulse-control issues? Also, like you can talk: you're still officially dead.”
Steve heard Clint snort and out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed Natasha's lips quirk in amusement. Coulson's expression didn't change, his eyes still locked on Daniel. Who was meeting his eyes straight-on, the friendly, mild-mannered man gone and replaced with a hardness Steve recognized. Now he looked like a soldier, someone hardened by experience. Beside him, Cassie was pale and visibly shaking with nerves, but clearly trying to keep a brave face on. Her hands weren't visible, but one of them was angled forward just enough for him to be able to imagine it clutching her uncle's for support.
“What I'm saying is that most people don't get more than one funeral, let alone three,” said Coulson.
“And I don't see how that's any business of yours,” said Daniel.
Now Coulson's lips curled into a bland smile that didn't reach his eyes. “I tend to make things my business.”
Daniel looked at him for a moment and then his gaze swept over to Skye next to him and May, who hadn't sat down again, but was leaning against the kitchen counter just out of his line of sight. Steve wondered if this was his subtle way of pointing out that he was aware of what they were doing. Daniel's gaze returned to Coulson, his eyes sharper than before.
“You weren't at the museum by accident,” he said, and it wasn't a question. “Who are you?”
“Phil Coulson, I believe we've already been introduced.”
“No, that's your name.” Daniel paused for a moment. “Who are you? If you were NID this charade wouldn't be necessary. The Trust wouldn't be bothered playing games like this. The CIA generally stays out of our way and we're on pretty good terms with the Russians these days, although I suppose you can never be completely sure.”
“We're not Russian. We're SHIELD.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow at the response.
“What's Project Blue Book?” Skye suddenly asked.
“Classified,” Daniel snapped, his expression darkening. His gaze swept around the table. “So was all of this an elaborate set-up? Were all of you at the Met just to get to me?”
Clint sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Nat and I were, although not with these guys,” he said, gesturing vaguely towards Coulson and his people. “Steve and Sam were honestly just taking the day off to go to the museum, and Tony and Bruce didn't even know any of us were in town.”
Daniel nodded and some of the tension left his shoulders, although he was clearly still on his guard. Steve sympathized with him; he remembered vividly what it had been like when the Triskellion had gone from being a safe haven to enemy territory within the blink of an eye.
“We know you work on Project Blue Book,” said Coulson calmly.
“Yeah, I figured as much,” said Daniel dryly. “You wouldn't be asking me otherwise.”
“We know about the SGC,” Skye tried again.
Daniel looked at her and then smirked. “No, you don't. You wouldn't be asking me if you did.” His face smoothed out and he looked back to Coulson. “You may have looked at what you could find of the personnel roster and decided that the head geek was a weak link you could exploit, but I've been intimidated and questioned by people far more terrifying than you are. So unless you plan to go through with the threat of those knives May's holding, we're done here.”
“Hey, uh, yeah that's not going to happen,” Tony interjected. He glared at Coulson. “Agent, I like you, but I've gotten really good at ejecting unwanted SHIELD agents and since that whole Washington kerfuffle, I've added a few extra features to my security. Daniel is my guest.” A beat passed. “Also, Bruce's eyes are turning green.”
All eyes were instantly on Doctor Banner, whose eyes were indeed glowing bright green – and several green veins stood out prominently on his neck.
“Dammit,” he said though clenched teeth before standing and rushing out of the room.
“Is he okay?” Daniel asked, sounding worried.
“Yeah, he's fine,” said Tony. “The Other Guy's been pretty close to the surface ever since Bruce had to go back on the run after SHIELD fell and Ross was able to start coming after him again. Bruce'll get it under control again, it just takes time.”
Daniel nodded. “And the Hulk's understandably afraid that if he gets comfortable in safety again, that it'll just be snatched away from him. It's probably his way of keeping an eye on you to make sure you're here and safe.”
Tony stared at him. “I hadn't thought of it like that.”
Daniel shrugged. “It's a perfectly natural reponse.”
“Daniel,” Natasha said gently. Daniel looked to her, his expression wary. “The world's in danger, isn't it?”
“The world's always in danger,” he answered. “Too many hotheads with weapons that do too much damage.”
“True, but that's not what I meant.” She paused and Steve could watch her assessing Daniel. Daniel looked back at her calmly, waiting. Steve was certain he forgot to breathe for a few moments. And then Natasha blinked and in the split-second it took for her eyes to open and close, her demeanor changed. Her face became blank, her eyes just a little duller, everything about her just a little sharper.
She became Natasha Romanov, deadly assassin. For most people, this would be getting into character, but Steve knew that for her, this was the truth. It was everything else that was the mask.
“I was looking for something in the Pentagon last week and overheard an interesting conversation,” she said. “What are the Ori?”
Daniel blinked. “Classified,” he said after a pause, sounding much less hostile than he had when speaking to Coulson. In fact, he almost sounded regretful. Beside him, Cassie looked confused.
So it seemed she knew something about the project Daniel and her mother had been working on, but not nearly everything. Or maybe nothing current. Although, if Daniel had really had several funerals, then she'd probably been to them. Steve suddenly felt bad for having been a part of dredging up those memories for her.
“You know we specialize in saving the world,” said Clint softly. “If the world's in danger, we want to help save it. It's what we do.”
Daniel took a deep breath. “Thank you. I – let me think about it.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe I'll go get my shopping done this afternoon. There are a few things I need to consider.”
“And souvenirs to buy,” Cassie added.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yes, God forbid I forget to bring Vala her souvenirs.”
Cassie giggled, although there was a slight hysterical edge to it. Steve smiled at her reassuringly. Whatever was going on, she at least was a civilian, blameless except by association. And Daniel... Daniel at least hadn't lied to them. Steve could respect that; he'd run covert missions both during the war and in the twenty-first century. Perhaps not in this case, not when so much seemed to be at stake, but then again he also didn't know any details.
“Well, then I guess I'll see you all later,” Daniel said as he stood.
“Yeah, later man,” said Sam. “I'll be looking forward to that, uh, mujapiri or whatever it was called.”
“Mujadarra,” Daniel corrected with an amused smile. “It's an Egyptian green lentil dish. A worker on one of the digs I was on once showed me how to make it.”
“Green lentils?” Tony asked. He made a face. “That sounds healthy. I'm not sure I want to be a part of that.”
“We promise there'll be more cookies,” said Cassie.
Tony grinned. “My hero.”
No one said a word until they heard the elevator doors close.
“JARVIS?” Tony asked.
“Doctor Jackson and Cassandra Fraiser are both currently on their way to their rooms, sir.”
May walked up to the table to stand beside Coulson. “Are we really just going to let them go?”
“Yes,” Steve answered her. “We are.”
“He's testing us,” Natasha added, sounding like she approved.
“Yeah, we might've saved New York, but he hasn't really got any reason to trust us,” said Clint.
“But what if he contacts his superiors?” Skye asked. “He's gotta know a few people who'd love to know where we are.”
Coulson nodded. “It's why I sent Trip back to the quinjet this morning. Just in case we need to call for an extraction.”
“I'd say he's got good cause not to trust you,” said Tony with narrowed eyes aimed at Couslon. “Right now I sort of trust him more than I trust you, but then again I know all about the bugs you planted in his room. Also, were you planning on telling us about the tablet?”
“Sir, if I may interrupt: Doctor Jackson took a call earlier today from an individual he called 'Jack'.”
“That'll probably be Lieutenent General Jack O'Neill,” said Natasha.
“Again,” Clint added.
“I take it you recorded the conversation, JARVIS?” Coulson asked.
“Indeed, Director Coulson, I did. Regrettably, however, I was unable to discern most of the caller's side of the conversation.”
That was when Bruce walked back into the kitchen. He looked around the table, his expression darkening at the empty seats. “Where's Daniel?” he asked.
“Don't worry, he and Cassie went out to do some shopping,” Steve assured him.
“Yes, alone,” Coulson confirmed. “It's an act of faith on our part, to prove that we can be trusted.”
“Well, as alone as anyone can be in the middle of downtown Manhattan with hundreds of video cameras JARVIS can hack into and monitor,” said Tony. “You'll let us know if our friend Danny does anything strange, right J?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Excellent! Have a seat Brucie, and J, hit us with that phone conversation.”